Cool is Over, but Cultural Commons are Kicking Ass

A classmate of mine has written a thought-provoking piece on “the end of subcultural scarcity”, a term coined by James Bridle. The argument, as I understand it (though I would heartily recommend the article here []) is that due to the increasing contraction of space and time and the hyper-cross fertilization in popular culture enabled by advances in music and communication technology, subculture can no longer maintain an autonomous existence for any length of time. The intermission between the subcultural creative outburst and its absorption into mass culture has narrowed to the point where they two are increasingly indistinguishable;

“What I’ve started to notice is that as soon as a style or affect begins to emerge, it explodes immediately. There is no lag time, seemingly no period during which the avant-garde is actually more advanced than the plain old guard. Any sense there might once have been of ‘underground’ or ‘subculture’ has collapsed into one cultural behemoth. And more than that, the center and periphery—if we can just divide things up that way for the sake of convenience—are constantly sharing material, to the degree that it’s nearly impossible to tell what comes from where. The circle of mutual re-appropriation is so close and continuous that the very idea of appropriation begins to seem silly.”

My main point of contention with this analysis is that the core of most influential subcultures of the last few decades is not restrictions on their consumption nor their relative insularity. The value subcultures hold for their participants, particularly in the heady early days of creative effervescence, is not a sense of being in the know, or having privileged access to emergent forms of cultural capital. What merits attention as regards subcultural expression is not scarcity. Rather, it is the joy of collective production.

The two most influential, arguably paradigmatic subcultures of the last forty years, Hip Hop and Punk, made this an explicit part of the subcultural ethos.  When I was introduced to Hip Hop culture (in the early 2000’s, well passed its heyday but in the midst of a kind of neoclassical renaissance) the point was stressed to me a great deal: Hip Hop is not a spectator sport. Don’t hate, participate. Being involved in the subculture is not about going to look at rappers do their thing; you are expected to be proficient in one of the four elements (graffiti, breaking, mc’ing, or dj’ing) and, according to the truly orthodox, you must be able to defend this proficiency in a battle.

The films documenting Hip Hop’s formative years, such as Wild Style and Style Wars, watched with religious fervor by heads everywhere, clearly demonstrate that subcultural cohesion and identity derived from participation in cultural production at a distance from (but never entirely autonomous of nor hostile to) the logic of capital accumulation. Its reification, first as culture and then as commodity, has gradually pushed this aspect into the background. Punk seems to have followed a similar trajectory.

Another, more contemporary example which springs to mind is the proliferation of the Jamaican-UK sound-system tradition across continental Europe. People are building speaker boxes everywhere, with blueprints shared for free on torrenting sites. There is a cottage industry of 7″s recorded and pressed to meet the demand for fresh tunes. Again, the joy involved really is less tied to privileged accesses and more to do with mutual support and participation; the sound system is structured as a kind of apprenticeship where you pay your dues carrying speakers and working the bar or the door, until you get to spin records or pick up the microphone. Audiences respond equally enthusiastically to a well-known Jamaican classic from the late ’60s or something fresh off the press from Hamburg or Poitiers. The sense of historical continuity and community, rather than a pathos for novelty or exclusivity, is the driving force. This is not to say that it is primarily nostalgic; the contemporary European audience’s response to the music is clearly contingent on a range of social factors different from the context in which it was initially conceived, though a certain affinity and linkage must be presumed.

With this in mind, I would argue that another angle on the amorphous nature of popular culture today is that the networks of cultural production are increasingly distributed, rather than centralized. In other words, the participatory practices of subcultural production are becoming increasingly hegemonic. The means to produce and share music have been dramatically democratized; the practices of sampling, remixing, and pirating music are re-commoning music, and increasingly blurring the lines between producer and consumer. The anemic pastiches dished out by the increasingly fossilized music industry are clumsy responses to this process, not the impetus behind it.

In fact, my impression is that music is getting better and better. The possibilities for creative communities producing and sharing music across spatio-temporal restrictions means that a broader range of musical ideas and cultural expressions are increasingly viable. For instance, the revival (a revival neither nostalgic nor ironic) of high modernity’s greatest cultural form, classic soul and R&B*, by Daptone Records, is unthinkable without the radical de-centering of cultural hegemony.

There are countless artistic possibilities inherent in a situation where we both have unprecedented access to the means of producing and distributing music ourselves, as well as increasing access to information about cultural practices of the past. Furthermore this endothermic creative process is increasingly at odds with the commodity form and the centralized control of flows required by capitalism, at least as traditionally conceived, and thus articulates social struggle in its forms, if not always content. That’s not to say that there aren’t sustained and often successful attempts at recuperation, but decentered cultural production is prior and it is increasingly able to assert its autonomy, the odd Ke$ha or Azealia Banks notwithstanding. So while the outward appearance of subcultural cohesion and the attendant opportunities for cultural accumulation by aesthetic elites may be a thing of the past, the genuinely progressive aspects of subculture are alive and kicking.

*yes, yes it is.

Auto-reduction as Social Cartography


Mass fare-dodging in protest against an increase in fares, Stockholm, 2010 (source,

This is the text of a presentation I’m giving on Friday. It’s still a little unfinished.

Inspired by William Bunge’s attempts at reimagining cartography as a radical political practice, I will here attempt to outline a cartographic approach to a specific political practice. is a fare-dodgers union organized by the Swedish organization SUF, a syndicalist youth league associated with the syndicalist union SAC, in 2001.

The initial impetus for the formation of such an organization was a fare-hike on the Stockholm transit system. SUF was, and remains, influenced by Italian Autonomia and various unorthodox Marxisms as well as classic anarcho-syndicalism, and the decision to refuse to pay the increased fare was inspired by the auto-reduction movements of the 70’s in Italy

One morning in August 1974, workers in Pinerolo, just outside the Italian
industrial city of Torino, were told about the decision to raise prices on the
busses that took them from home to work by thirty percent. That was the final
straw. The workers refused to accept the price hike and began to print their
own tickets, which they then sold at the original price. […] This form of
resistance, which came to be called ‘self-reduction’ (autoriduzione), became the
spark that made the brittle trust in the authorities and corporations go up in
smoke. A whole movement of self-reduction spread over Northern Italy. […]
What began with a relatively modest increase in bus prices ended in a wave of
self-management that made companies and authorities think twice before
committing another such mistake. (Morris 2003)53

The idea spread to Sweden through contact with Italian activists during the “summit hopping” years of the 90’s and early 00’s. organized membership dues into a solidarity fund, which would cover any fines which members incurred while fare dodging. In addition to this, activists from have been extremely prolific, both in terms of demonstrations, a variety of media stunts, and the publication of a great deal of theory and proposals on urban commons and mobility. The organization has, to a large extent, been responsible for the popularization of the term “nolltaxa” (fare-less, free of charge) and the demand for free public transportation. Ten years on, Planka is sufficiently embedded in Swedish popular culture to be referenced in rap songs and be invited to TED talks. The movement has since spread to Norway, Denmark, and Finland.

The Stockholm public transport system thoroughly privatized and fragmented. Similar processes are underway in most larger Scandinavian cities. The process of privatization has been accompanied by an increasingly invasive securitization (including recurring incidents of violence by security personnel and police against commuters, as well as injuries caused by the turnstiles themselves) as well as increases in fares. Predictably, the privatization has led to the virtual destruction of the transport workers unions and the increasing use of underpaid, and sometimes-undocumented migrant labor. The transit authorities (though ostensibly still a public service) refer to commuters as “customers” and the areas under its control are treated as private property.

The political aims articulated by hover somewhere between social democratic nostalgia and autonomist notions of free appropriation of use value. The name of the solidarity fund is p-kassan, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the trade unions’ venerable unemployment fund, a-kassan. The demand for free public transport is couched in terms of the commute being part of the working day. Furthermore, the case is made that the spatial segregation of Stockholm (a fairly concentric city with a wealthy centre and poorer periphery) necessitates a social policy on mobility. There are also vague calls for self-management of the transport system by commuters and workers, but this is probably the least developed aspect of Plankas politics. The stated goals of the organization are thus more or less predicated on a kind of welfare state nostalgia. Nevertheless, the demand is actualized by its own formulation; public transport is in a sense already free for Planka members. The demand for free public transportation, while being pragmatic, realistic, and eminently compatible with capitalism, nevertheless retains an air of titillating impossibility.
So how is all this an act of mapping?

In one sense, Planka presents public transportation as a microcosm of capitalism, one which is experiential in a very direct sense. After joining Planka, (perhaps having read some of the literature, perhaps not) the commuter experiences the space of the transit system as contested ground between opposing interests. In the act of refusing to pay, the commuter is in effect reappropriating this space as common. In refusing to pay as part of an emergent collectivity, the commuter is made aware that an interest in reappropriation of enclosed commons is an interest she shares with others, and one that can be effectuated best by means of mutual aid and solidarity.

Furthermore, the defiance of the apparatus of control, which mobilizes an impressive number of cctv cameras, rent-a-cops, and turnstiles to give the impression of omniscience and dominance, is symbolically significant. The ludic propaganda films Planka produces, showing creative turnstile jumping and sometimes direct defiance of security personnel, underscores the point that such dominance is never as total as the image it projects.

Thus participation in Planka situates the commuter in a collective antagonistic discourse as well as a physical space where a variety of contending interests clash, in addition to underscoring the weakness of systems of control (at least in relation to the widespread perceptions thereof). To the extent that the goal of a radical cartography is to help the individual situate themselves physically and conceptually in a social framework, I would make the case that by imbuing public spaces with alternative meanings which manifest the social conflict that shapes them. Planka is thus, in addition to direct action, a form of representation.

Planka Oslo in May Day march, Oslo, 2012

Planka Oslo in May Day march, Oslo, 2012

Tadzio Mueller, in his Phd thesis “Other Worlds, Other Values”, argues that Planka takes an act of indeterminate political content, namely fare dodging, and imbues it with radical content. Privatization, fare dodging, and¬ Planka constitute a “battle of flows”. The breakdown of the disciplinary society of the welfare state, predicated on the entente between labor and capital, and the emergence of a new neo-liberal ethos is a shift in flow. The shift engenders various smaller flows which diverge from the shifting flows, such as fare-dodging, shoplifting, file sharing, etc, activities of those for whom the old sense of social responsibility is obsolete but who have not internalized the neo-liberal ethos of paying customers.

Mueller argues that social democracy “captured” the ruptural potentialities in the antagonism and solidarity of the labor movement and institutionalized it in the state and class compromise through symbolic coding. As this symbolic coding disintegrates;

hitherto territorialised flows are simultaneously de- and then re-territorialised through the process of commodification/conjugation. But something slips through the cracks; something breaks out when the coding of flows by the welfare state is replaced with the conjugation of flows effected by capital (Deleuze and Guattari 2004a, 192, 231). Some of the energies and flows that traverse the city of Stockholm every day escape become potential lines of flight, escaping from the striated, hierarchically organized space of the state, refusing to be drawn into the circuit of capital valorization. Or more concretely: some people simply stop paying for rides, start stealing them, because they have stopped believing in folkhemmet, and have not (yet) started believing that we should pay private companies for moving freely in our cities.(Mueller, 2006 page 138)

It is this politically indeterminate flow (Mueller points out that it could just as well be read as the actions of profit-maximizing individuals who balance the risk of being caught with the money saved) which Planka seeks to politicize.

It is thus mapping in a second sense; it places a behavior formulated in response to changing conditions in a political discourse. It actively interprets actions; both articulating them and imposing a political agenda on them. In this sense it maps the act of fare-dodging, rather than providing the commuter with an alternative “map” of her social circumstance, as described above. Planka is at this point a natural part of any televised debate on fare dodging (and increasingly, matters of transport as whole), “representing” the interests of fare dodgers. A collective political identity with articulated demands has emerged, where previously there was only amorphous anti-social behaviour.

There is a third, and rather more speculative way in which Planka can be an act of mapping. Speculative because I do not currently have the data at hand to support any of the following claims. I bring it up because I feel it is an interesting line of thought, which is not, to my knowledge currently explored by any of the Planka collectives.

We could conceptualize Planka as a kind of militant inquiry, not in the workplace, as has traditionally been the case, but in enclosed urban commons. For militants concerned with such matters, Planka membership data provides an index of people
who are at any point at odds with the imposition of fares and privatization to the degree that they are prepared to take direct action (whether due to conviction or other contingency). The numbers of people participating could be read as an indication of wider mood in the urban populace towards urban enclosure. Or, if further sociological data (ie age, social background, etc) on participants rendered such a distinction possible, of a certain segment of the urban populace.

Furthermore, the activity opens a line of communication between the researcher and, as it where, the subject (although such a distinction is problematic in this context). It puts the researcher in a position far removed from the disinterested observer, but the position as catalyst/lightning rod is one that could undoubtedly yield different insights altogether. The communication between the active core of Planka and its members, supporters, and detractors, in the form of emails, status updates, tweets, etc is one source of material. Another is the authority’s responses to the phenomenon, as these are expressed in interventions in public discourse and attempts at repression. The organization is essentialy in a position to collect and systematize the responses to a situation it has created.

In this sense, Planka provides a unique vantage point from which to engage with the wider process of resistance or acquiescence to the process of urban enclosure. It creates (or rather, draws out) conflicts which are not immediately visible in the urban landscape. Its emergence as a focal point for discontent, at a convergence of issues ranging from the right to urban space to the legitimacy of representative democracy, can potentially provide militants with a great deal of insight into the dynamic between people, state, and capital as it plays out in cities.